The Conspiracy Theories About Jan. 6 Aren’t Going Anywhere. They’re Morphing.

A man in a red Trump hat stands with his hand outstretched, in front of an American flag, with a crowd around him.
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Had Ray Epps been charged with a crime earlier, it could have saved him a lot of anguish.

One of the more than 1,100 people to face criminal charges over their actions at the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021, Epps waited more than two and a half years before finally being charged, pleading guilty last week to a misdemeanor charge of disorderly or disruptive conduct on restricted grounds.

For most people, this kind of criminal charge would have come as a blow. But in a statement, Epps’ lawyer described the charges as something of a badge of honor:

From the very moment that Ray Epps learned the FBI sought to identify him, Ray cooperated and has taken responsibility for his actions. Today’s hearing and the plea agreement reached with the Department of Justice is further proof of that. It is also powerful evidence of the absurdity of Fox News’s and Tucker Carlson’s lies that sought to turn Ray into a scapegoat for January 6.

The reason for that tone of defiance—or even muted triumph?—is that Epps really has been turned into a scapegoat. Within days of the insurrection, many right-wing supporters of Donald Trump and conspiracy theorists had shifted from blaming antifa to blaming “the feds” for the violence at the Capitol, alleging, in essence, that the riot had been some kind of entrapment setup orchestrated by the government to ensnare Trump supporters. And quickly, Epps emerged as a central villain of that conspiracy theory.

There was never any real reason for him to be singled out: Epps is a die-hard Trump supporter, former Oath Keeper, and election denier who traveled from Arizona to D.C. to show his support for the former president. But all it took was a few internet sleuths looking for signs of something suspicious to instigate a pile-on that ruined Epps’ life.

As pieced together from witness testimony, video evidence, body camera footage, and his statements, given to both reporters and authorities, Epps’ actions in D.C. verged on—but did not tip into—destruction. The night before the riot, he and his son attended a pro-Trump rally at Black Lives Matter Plaza, a short distance from the White House. There, he was seen on video telling people: “Tomorrow we need to go into the Capitol.” As a man in the crowd suspicious of Epps’ motivations chanted, “Fed, fed, fed,” at him; Epps clarified: “peacefully.” (This was, it would seem in retrospect, the conspiracy theory’s germination point.) The next day, videos capture him telling people, “as soon as President Trump is finished speaking, we are going to the Capitol.”

Despite advocating an advance on the Capitol, however, Epps appeared to back off once he got there. Body camera footage showed that he asked police how he could help them, offering to encourage protesters to back off. A witness confirmed Epps’ assertion that he tried to calm other protesters, urging them not to get angry with police. He crossed into restricted grounds but never actually entered the Capitol building itself. He left before the crowd broke into the building. A couple days later, when Epps learned the FBI was looking for him, he called the bureau immediately to speak to agents.

But Epps’ real troubles started almost a year later, in October 2021. That month, a right-wing site called Revolver News published an article claiming, baselessly, that Epps had led a team of undercover federal agents that aimed to instigate the riot. The conspiracy theory blew up. Steve Bannon and then Tucker Carlson latched on to it. Reps. Thomas Massie, Matt Gaetz, and Marjorie Taylor Greene talked about it. Donald Trump mentioned the theory at one of his rallies ahead of the midterms.

The conspiracy theory relied on intentional misunderstandings and misleadingly edited videos. It was first built on the claims that Epps should have been arrested—and because he hadn’t, the FBI was clearly protecting him. Conspiracy theorists also found it suspicious that a photo of Epps was added and removed from the FBI’s website. And to be sure, there were known FBI informants at the insurrection. But they were there for their own personal interest and not acting on behalf of the government. And those we know of were mostly recruited to help the agency understand antifa, not right-wing groups. There were a few informants among the Proud Boys, we would learn in later trials; they have dismissed the accusation that they were paid to start the riot as ridiculous.

According to the New York Times, which interviewed Epps under the condition that the paper not reveal where he lived, the abuse Epps received was crushing. People showed up at his house and his business; once, he told the Jan. 6 committee, a whole bus load of people pulled up to harass him. He and his wife had to sell their business. Family members disowned them. Death threats drove Epps and his wife from their home. In July of this year, Epps filed a defamation suit against Fox News. It was his attorney for this defamation suit that put out a statement last week related to the new charges. It’s clear that Epps and his attorney see some vindication in them:

Had Ray been charged earlier, Fox News would have called him a hero and political prisoner. Instead, Fox News spread falsehoods about Ray that have cost him his livelihood and safety. And to this day, Fox News has not retracted the lies or even reported on Ray’s prosecution. Fox News should take a lesson from Ray and accept responsibility for its conduct. If it won’t, we are confident that a civil jury will impose that accountability itself.

But Epps likely doesn’t expect immediate relief: He told the New York Times in July 2022 that he knew people would never be convinced of his innocence.

It’s been more than two and a half years since the Capitol riots, and the wound still feels fresh. Trump has obviously, characteristically, never apologized for his role—and perhaps understandably so, as he was indicted for his part in instigating the violence that day, among other charges. Trump’s supporters maintain the election was stolen from him; for many, the Jan. 6 riots are still seen as an appropriate reaction to a deep state coup.

But it has taken years for all of the charges to come down, and this extended time frame has created ample room for the conspiracy theories that welled up immediately after the attack to metastasize and grow, and for cynical pundits like Tucker Carlson to feed them.

This month alone saw the arrests of the first man to enter the Capitol’s tunnel entrance, the baton-swinging Georgia man known as Commander Camo, a D.C.-area man who wore a gas mask while attacking police, and many more. The Proud Boys’ former leader Enrique Tarrio was sentenced this month to 22 years for orchestrating attacks on the Capitol on Jan. 6. (He was not in D.C. during the riot, but he organized the far-right group’s involvement.)

The sheer scope of the story has turned it into political background noise and has made it too large to grasp at the macro level. There’s not one satisfying answer to how it all unfolded and why.

Those who believe that Epps was involved in a conspiracy to ensnare Trump supporters will probably not change their mind now that the Justice Department has charged him with a misdemeanor. In online forums, many angry people just found more fuel for their suspicions, questioning why Epps had such light charges—proof, in their minds, that he worked with the feds.

Online, many have pointed out that Epps, in a text to his nephew the afternoon of the insurrection, boasted that he had helped “orchestrate” the events. He was clearly filmed on the grounds as an active participant. Why wasn’t he subjected to a fraction of the punishment handed down to Enrique Tarrio, the Proud Boys leader who was sentenced to 22 years in prison despite the fact that he hadn’t been in D.C. on Jan. 6? Or Pam Hemphill, a 69-year-old woman—often described as a grandmother and cancer patient—who was sentenced to two months for entering the Capitol? (Hemphill has asked Trump to stop using her story and said that she is not a victim.)

But these talking points miss out on certain important distinctions between these cases. Epps may have urged people to go into the Capitol, but he did so the night before—meaning it does not meet the legal definition of incitement. (He also told the Jan. 6 committee that he was under the impression that the building would be open to the public.) On Jan. 6, he was only seen telling people to go from Trump’s speech to the Capitol—for, as far as anyone could reasonably assume, politically protected protest on public land. When he said he “orchestrated” things, it’s this movement he seems to be referring to, not the violent events that followed. There is no evidence he incited violence once the crowd arrived at the Capitol. (Other claims that assert he was breaking windows or caught on camera in the Capitol building are based either on misinformation or edited photos and videos.)

And as for the sentencing: Very few people who didn’t go into the Capitol itself were arrested. Those who were charged were more violent. And as for the delay: The Jan. 6 investigation has been enormous and time-consuming. More than 100 people identified as breaking the law that day have still yet to be arrested.

And yet, cynical right-wing Congress members are still pushing the conspiracy theory version of events. In a House Judiciary Committee hearing last week, when Attorney General Merrick Garland was grilled by Republicans, Rep. Thomas Massie accused the DOJ of indicting Epps to protect Garland:

Yesterday you indicted him. Isn’t that a wonderful coincidence? And on a misdemeanor. Meanwhile you’re sending grandmas to prison. You’re putting people away for 20 years for merely filming. Some people weren’t even there. And yet you’ve got the guy on video, he’s saying, ‘Go into the Capitol.’ He’s directing people to the Capitol before [Trump’s] speech ends. He’s at the site of the first breach. You’ve got all the goods on him. Ten videos. And it’s an indictment for a misdemeanor? The American public isn’t buying it.

In some conspiracy theories circulating online about Jan. 6, the DOJ wanted to incite the riot in order to be able to jail Trump supporters, or at least make them look bad. In others, they wanted to cause enough chaos to prevent people from presenting evidence of election fraud. In almost all of them, Epps is working for a federal agency. And Epps’ behavior since then—complaining about the threats to mainstream media and to officials, and suing a conservative news network—has only made him more suspect. Tucker Carlson, speaking on his show on Twitter (now known as X), casually mentioned that Epps was a “hero on the left” and “funded by the Democratic Party.” He wondered aloud why Epps was not in jail, as his guest, former Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund—who has speculated that multiple federal agents were in the crowd during the insurrection—implied that Epps was a plant.

Epps may be the most famous such scapegoat, but he isn’t the only one. A rabid St. Louis Cardinals fan known as “Rally Runner“—known prior to Jan. 6 for his sports-related antics—was arrested last month by the FBI, but not before another Carlson guest labeled Rally Runner a police officer and “agent provocateur.”

That guest was Joseph McBride, the attorney of other Jan. 6 defendants. He told Carlson that Rally Runner was planted to make Trump supporters look bad. As HuffPost noted, McBride has been open about not caring about the repercussions of his words or the arguments he has made in order to help shape the narrative to help his own clients. “I don’t give a shit about being wrong,” he told HuffPost.

McBride, like Carlson, understands the power of conspiracy theory. And that power, Epps learned, was much worse than anything the DOJ could hit him with.